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       Fractured, p.2

           Catherine McKenzie
 

  “He’ll be fine. But, wow, a newspaper boy. I haven’t seen one of those in years. Do people still read the paper?”

  “They do. How else would we know whose cat got stuck in what tree?”

  “Local paper?”

  “Local paper,” he agreed.

  The bike squeaked closer. I could hear the thump of newsprint landing against the house one door over.

  We watched the boy pedal toward us. He was tall and thin and had that straw-colored hair you usually only see on young children.

  He applied his brakes and stopped inches from John, who didn’t flinch.

  “Aw, man. Thought I’d get you that time.”

  John ruffled the top of his head.

  “Julie, this is my son, Chris. Chris, this is one of our new neighbors, Mrs. Prentice.”

  “Hey.”

  “Forgive him. That’s teenager for ‘Nice to meet you, Mrs. Prentice.’”

  “Don’t worry about it. I’ve got two of my own who think they’re already teenagers. And nobody calls me Mrs. Prentice. It’s just Julie, or, if you insist on formality, Ms. Apple.”

  “Apple like the fruit?” Chris asked.

  I felt a nervous prickle at the back of my neck. I hadn’t meant to use my maiden name. It was another thing I was supposed to have left behind in Tacoma, along with the horrible weather.

  “Chris!”

  I forced out a laugh. “You think that’s the first time I’ve gotten a raised eyebrow with that last name? They still doing that ‘Banana Fana Fo Fana’ thing in school these days, Chris?”

  “Apple, Apple, bo-bapple, Banana-fana fo-fapple—”

  “That’ll do, young man.” John fake-covered Chris’s mouth. His voice wasn’t quite as deep as his father’s, but seemed midway to getting there. I guessed that he was about fourteen or fifteen years old.

  He ducked away. “Da-ad.”

  Chris wheeled his bike to the side of the house and dropped it in front of the garage.

  “He never puts that thing away,” John said. “I keep telling him someone’s going to run over it someday.”

  “Isn’t that how things have been for time immemorial? Nothing changes.”

  “Except for the Tinder thing.”

  “I should know what that is, right?”

  “Please. I don’t even know what that is. I look words up on the Internet and throw them into conversations randomly so my kids think I know what they’re up to.”

  “How’s that working for you?”

  He crossed the fingers on both hands and raised them to shoulder height. “No pregnant girlfriends yet.”

  “Nice.”

  The church bells went off—a deep, booming gong. I looked at my watch. It was 7:00 a.m.

  “Hell,” I said. “I should scatter.”

  “Right. Me, too. It was nice meeting you.”

  “You, too.”

  We stood there a moment even though we’d said good-bye.

  No, you hang up, I thought, and turned to leave before he could see me blush.

  I trotted the few steps to my front door and placed my thumb on the keypad to unlock it. I’d made a special trip out a few weeks before to make sure the locksmith had installed it properly. He clearly thought I was insane, but security wasn’t something I fooled around with.

  “I really enjoyed your book, by the way,” John called after me as I eased the door open.

  My shoulders rose to meet my ears.

  Please don’t ask if it’s based on me, please don’t ask if it’s based on—

  “You must have quite an imagination.”

  I turned and smiled. “Why, thank you, neighbor.”

  Sam and Melissa were waiting for me inside the door, still in their footy pajamas. They were six years old that fall, identical as two children of the opposite sex could be: dark-brown hair, big brown eyes fringed with long lashes, and creamy skin that tanned, even though I lathered them in SPF 75 and made them wear sun shirts whenever they were outside for more than ten minutes.

  Melissa leaped into my arms with her usual cry of “Momsy!” before I was fully through the door. Sam clambered onto Sandy, saying “Giddy up!” Sandy gave me a pitiful look.

  “Dan! Daniel?”

  “In here,” he called from the kitchen.

  I slung Melly onto my back and walked down the hall. The previous owners had spent a fortune knocking down walls to turn a web of small rooms into an airy sequence of spaces that flowed one into the other: living, dining, kitchen. The walls were painted in a watery palette, blues and grays that combined with the light-oak floors to make it feel like a beach house. Though we’d done the extravagant thing and had the movers pack and unpack us, the house was nowhere near organized. Paintings leaned against the walls, there were empty boxes everywhere, and I was pretty certain most of the furniture would end up in a different place from where the movers had left it, even though they’d followed the plan I’d left for them to a T.

  The kitchen was what sold me on the house. It had a mix of white and dark cabinets, and the entire back wall was made up of windows that overlooked a large deck with a fantastic view of the Ohio River. It was going to be a “bitch to heat,” as Daniel said, but for someone who spent most of her waking hours indoors, good light was everything to me. Especially after living in the Pacific Northwest for ten years. Tacoma has more than two hundred cloudy days on average, enough to make anyone reach for a sunlamp. Or an SSRI.

  “Are we really going to be late on the first day?” I asked Daniel, who was looping his tie through his shirt collar as he watched himself in the reflection of the microwave. He’d had a haircut, which came out a tad too short. His red hair was starting to thin at the crown, but I hadn’t worked up the courage to ask him if he’d noticed. Daniel was that rare exception: a good-looking redheaded man. His skin tanned where it should’ve burned. A smattering of freckles set off his gray eyes. His beard was just the right length between scruff and in need of a trim. I’d hoped at least one of the twins would take after him, but instead they were carbon copies of me.

  “Why would today be any different?” He finished the knot on his tie, securing it in place.

  “One can always hope.”

  “Well, if you hadn’t been outside flirting for so long . . .”

  “What? I—”

  He grinned and planted a kiss on my forehead. “Relax, honey. A little harmless flirting is what keeps life interesting.”

  Quiet descended on the house an hour later as the church bell sounded out once again. I watched Daniel drive away with the kids securely in the backseat of our sedan—no SUVs or minivans for us because we’d both had a lifelong hatred of the things—and took a cleansing breath. I walked through the first floor, picking up the evidence of the daily struggle it was to get the twins out of the house. A pair of Superman Underoos; the infinite pieces of Lego I was always stepping on; the Pokémon cards Sam announced he wanted two days into kindergarten, which he guarded jealously from his sister, but wasn’t responsible enough to put into the plastic sleeves in the binder he’d gotten on their birthday. I could spend my days picking up after them, ferrying them to and fro, tending to their every need.

  I had done just that for the first half of their lives, and I might still be doing it if not for The Idea that led to The Book that led to . . . well, it was hard to encapsulate my life after that in two capitalized words.

  But all that had happened, and now I was on deadline for Book Two. That one was easy to capitalize, though it didn’t quite capture my certain knowledge that it would never measure up to The Book. The Deadline (really, this was such a cheap writer’s trick, but one that appealed to me too much, I feared) was a hard-won twelve months away. That meant I had to write 274 words (rounding up) a day to reach the 100,000 words that would make up the manuscript. Which sounded totally doable, ridiculous even, given the fever dream in which I’d written the first one. But with everything, with life, it meant I actually had to write 1,000 words a day betwe
en the hours of nine and three Monday to Friday, when the twins reappeared and robbed the house of the silence I needed to go to the dark places required to write . . . I didn’t know what yet, exactly, which was a large part of the problem.

  Everyone’s life has its complications.

  Sometimes you get to choose them, and sometimes they’re thrust upon you.

  The trick is knowing which is which.

  Birthday Boy

  John

  Twelve months ago

  I woke on the morning of my forty-fifth birthday with a thud.

  That’s what it felt like, though I was safe in my bed. Like falling in a dream.

  My eyes snapped open. I couldn’t tell where I was. I felt a moment of panic, then forced myself to think. My life came back to me in bite-size chunks. Home. Bed. Wife. Birthday. Forty-five.

  How the fuck did that happen?

  I waited for my heart to slow, then checked the time: 5:35 a.m.

  Fantastic. I was already waking up at the old-man hour my father always kept.

  I knew myself well enough to know there wouldn’t be any point in trying to go back to sleep. Instead, I lay there, listening to Hanna breathe. She’s always been a perfect sleeper. Lights out minutes after her head hits the pillow. Waking precisely one minute before her alarm. I teased her about it, but I was simply jealous. I was well acquainted with all the hours of the night.

  Eventually, I got up. Might as well take advantage of the early hour to do . . . what, exactly? I had no hobbies I could do at that hour. I felt too restless to read. I went to the bathroom to empty my bladder. Did this also come along with forty-five? A shrinking bladder and less and less sleep? I caught sight of myself in the full-length mirror. I’d always prided myself on being fit for my age. But could I still say that?

  The mirror told me no.

  I went into our closet and looked for my running stuff. I’d had all these plans in the spring to train for a half marathon. Best laid plans. Set aside.

  It was time to take them up again. That, or succumb to the inevitable.

  So I suited up, wrote a note for Hanna, and ran into the dawn.

  I got back to the house in under an hour. My legs felt rubbery and my shoulders ached. I was as out of shape as I feared. But all that disappeared in the minutes I stood speaking to our new neighbor, Julie. After our conversation, I waited on our front stoop and watched until she disappeared into her house. A celebrity in our midst, I thought. Nothing that exciting had happened in Mount Adams since I didn’t know when.

  Inside, Hanna and the kids were standing in a half circle with we’ve-planned-something grins on their faces. Hanna was holding a plate. It was covered with the top of our wok.

  “Happy birthday, Dad!” Becky and Chris said loudly before breaking into an off-key version of “Happy Birthday.”

  Hanna lifted the lid. Two sparklers lit up the numbers they were sitting on, above a gooey chocolate cake. Forty-five. Or fifty-four, the way she was holding it. I longed to reach out and turn it around. Instead, I plastered a big grin on my face.

  “Cake for breakfast!” Becky said. “Isn’t it awesome?”

  “It is. Very awesome.”

  “Can we have it now?”

  “Of course,” Hanna said.

  We trooped to the kitchen. Hanna handed me a knife. Becky and Chris broke into another round of “Happy Birthday,” changing the “Happy birthday, dear Da-ad” to “Happy birthday, old ma-an.”

  Hanna shushed them. “Be nice, kids. Now, John, remember, no talking until you’ve taken the first bite and made a wish.”

  I made a zipping sign across my lips. This was one of Hanna’s cardinal rules. The Magical Birthday Cake Wish. Apparently, total silence between blowing out the candles (or, in this case, removing the sparklers), cutting a piece, and eating a bite was essential for the wish to work.

  I cut a piece and ate a large bite off the fork she handed me.

  A long run, and cake for breakfast.

  I’d had worse starts to a year.

  The kids wolfed down their pieces, then followed Hanna’s instructions to get themselves ready for school. We needed to push the day into overdrive. It was already seven thirty. We were all going to be late if we didn’t get a move on.

  “What’s she like?” Hanna asked me in our bathroom a few minutes later. “The new neighbor? Chris said you were talking outside.”

  She was brushing out her hair and applying makeup simultaneously. I was toweling off from the world’s fastest shower. I could already feel my muscles protesting the fact that I hadn’t stretched. I didn’t know if magic birthday wishes worked, but I made a birthday resolution: regular runs. At least four miles a day.

  “She’s famous,” I said.

  “Oh? That wasn’t in the newsletter.”

  A few years ago, our down-the-street neighbor, Cindy Sutton, elected herself head of our neighborhood association and started a weekly newsletter with a few of the other stay-at-home moms. Cindy’s heart was in the right place, and she was popular on the street because she was generous with her time, particularly to new mothers. But the first time I’d gotten the newsletter, I’d hit “Unsubscribe” immediately. Unfortunately, Cindy was on to that game. She policed the mailing list like the Neighborhood Watch she soon had going. Within days, Hanna strongly suggested I resubscribe to keep the peace. I caved and read it haphazardly so I could make conversation when I ran into her. Accordingly, I’d read all about the Prentices before they arrived. Daniel was in advertising. Julie stayed at home. Two kids. A dog. From Washington State.

  “Don’t tell Cindy,” I said. “I got the impression Julie wanted it kept to herself.”

  “Why tell you, then?”

  “She didn’t. I recognized her.”

  “Who is it?”

  “Julie Apple.”

  Hanna looked puzzled. My wife is not a fiction reader.

  “She wrote that book. The Murder Game? You know, the one everyone was talking about a couple of years ago?”

  She tapped the side of her head. “I got nothing.”

  I kissed her. She tasted like a mix of toothpaste and chocolate frosting. She didn’t look twenty anymore, her age when we’d started dating, but I actually preferred this version. She was strong, sure, capable, beautiful. I was a lucky man.

  “I’ve always found it amazing how you can remember every detail of your cases, and yet where popular culture is concerned, it might as well have taken place on Mars.”

  “We haven’t landed on Mars yet, have we?”

  “Funny.”

  “I’ve only got so much RAM up in here,” she said, tapping the side of her head again. “I need to save it for the important things.”

  “Such as?”

  “Such as things I should remember to do more often.” She was eyeing the towel I was barely holding up. “Not bad for forty-five.”

  “Oh, yeah?”

  “Yeah.” She turned her head. “Kids! You better hurry or you’re going to miss the bus.”

  Becky shouted up the stairs. “I thought you were driving us?”

  “Not today. Get a move on!”

  Hanna took a step toward me, placing her hands on my hips. The towel fell to the ground. We stood silently as we listened to the kids grumbling and shuffling around. The front door opened and closed.

  “I have a meeting at nine thirty,” I said.

  “I guess you’re going to be late. Okay?”

  “Are you kidding? It’s a birthday wish come true.”

  She started to unbutton her blouse. “See, I told you. Those wishes work.”

  “I’ll never doubt you again.”

  What’s the difference between Googling and stalking? Julie had written in an article a year before she moved across the street. When do you cross the line from curious to obsessed? From fan to fanatic? Compliment to threat?

  That article propelled Julie from having written a book everyone was talking about to being someone everyone was talking about.
I read it that afternoon at work in a down moment. It chilled me. It was a cry for help from someone who was baffled. Who was scared. Who was hoping that by making her struggle public, the woman who was making her life miserable would stop.

  She didn’t.

  Later, as I stood in a line of parents who were shouting encouragement from the sidelines of the Hyde Park soccer field, her words stayed with me. Nothing good had come of that article. Her stalker seemed to receive more sympathy than Julie. The vitriol aimed at Julie in the comments section was the worst kind of misogyny. Calls for rape and dismemberment. Suggestions of book burnings.

  I tried to concentrate on Becky’s match. The air smelled of wet earth and dying grass. My feet were cold in my leather work shoes. I made a mental note to make sure I had boots in the trunk of my car for the rest of the soccer season.

  “Have you signed the online petition yet?” someone next to me asked.

  It was Cindy. Behind her stood two of the other moms she usually hung around with, Leslie and Stacey. I waved to them, but they were engrossed in the game. Cindy was wearing a red anorak and a whistle around her neck. She’d been warned that if she blew the whistle one more time she wasn’t going to be allowed to attend games. I was fairly certain that wouldn’t stop her if anyone came near her fifteen-year-old daughter, Ashley. She and Becky played on the same team despite their two-year age difference. Becky was tall and precocious and loved the sport. Ashley was a halfhearted player forced onto the field by her mother.

  “What?” I said.

  “The petition,” Cindy said. “The one I circulated last week? About installing speed bumps on our block?”

  I stared at her blankly. Of all the things I couldn’t give a crap about, speed bumps had to be at the top of the list. In fact, I was opposed to them, but I knew better than to voice that opinion.

  “I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet. Is there, uh, a deadline?”

  “Well, no, not per se, but—”

  The ref blew his whistle sharply and threw a red flag, then signaled to stop the play. Someone yelled that there was an “injury.”

  “I think someone’s hurt,” I said to Cindy.

 
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